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David Jarvis, managing director, Print Quest
When it comes to pre-press, there is a lot of competition between the repro houses that serve the flexographic printing industry today. Neel Madsen spoke to a handful of companies about what they can deliver to their customers.
Most repro houses these days are so much more than simple trade shops producing flexo plates for printers. They perform a whole range of pre-press services often speaking directly to the brands and guiding them through the process of producing the best possible packaging from start to finish.
Each company has its own take on how to supply the best pre-press service, the best plates and the best results for their customers. While everyone has the option to the use the same components of the process, it takes a lot of skill and experience to produce consistently excellent results. Finding that perfect combination of consumables and technology, and then tailoring it to the press that will be used for printing is what makes a lot of people in the industry tick.
Building a stable platform
Reproflex3, based in Cramlington north of Newcastle, is home to one of the largest Kodak Flexcel NX imaging sites in Europe. It first installed the mid sized NX system in 2010 and recently invested in the newly launched wider imaging device and processing line. This latest investment coincided with a major expansion that saw the company move into a new 10,000 square metres facility five months ago, more than doubling its footprint and offering the opportunity to install a large new platemaking room with the infrastructure set up for a fully fledged cleanroom. Total investment to date in both building works and more new equipment runs to £500,000.
First established in 1996 by Andrew Hewitson and Trevor Lowes, the company is a major proponent of Flexcel NX, which it sees as the ultimate in flexo technology. Mr Hewitson said, 'The stability we get from the NX plate is the driving force behind the exceptional quality we can offer our customers. This is the road we have gone down, and I can honestly say that we don't believe there are any other systems out there that are comparable.'
All pre-press processes for the entire business are centrally controlled by two main servers that run the Kodak Prinergy Powerpack workflow, a management system which the company was the first in the UK to invest in back in 2004 when it was still part of Creo's portfolio. The dual functionality means the servers can back each other up and they also connect externally to customers, network all printers, centralises colour management and all files. It further enables easy fault finding and full traceability should any errors occur anywhere in the process.
Control is a word mentioned again and again by Mr Hewitson both as he describes how the business is run and how each individual link in the pre-press chain is monitored but also how he sees the future of the company unfolding. He said, 'We have to get all the steps right and take out any question marks along the way. For instance, when we send the 1-bit Tiff file to the imager, it has to be absolutely correct so we don't waste time and money having to remake the plate. It is no use that errors are only discovered once the plate is on press. NX gives us total control, a repeatable process, and it is the stable platform on which we can build the future of our business.'
Amongst the company's customers, which include global brands as well as local businesses, is flexible packaging distributor, National Flexibles. Carol Burdett, commercial director, speaks highly of Reproflex3 and the quality of the plates, which it supplies. 'These guys are not only a joy to work with, but despite the relative small size of this operation, they are at the forefront of technology and very innovative. This is why we have continued to grow our relationship with them.' The two companies have worked together for six years and today all jobs produced for National Flexibles are NX.
Ms Burdett said that one of the advantages of the NX plates is the depth of colours and also the consistency with which jobs can be printed. She said, 'We are not even talking about the quality being as good as gravure, it is much better than gravure and I can say that because we offer both.'
Pushing the boundaries
R3 has also worked closely with Kodak to develop the Spotless Flexographic Solution for printing with reduced spot colours and an expanded colour gamut. It was the beta test site in 2011 for the new technology, which promises to cover 70% of all Pantone spot colours with just CMYK, and 90% when using six colours.
Printing with less spot colours, or even just the process set, means less downtime caused by wash up of ink stations when changing colours, savings in costs when less expensive spot colours are needed, and the ability to print different designs across the web and shorter runs.
Mr Hewitson said that a change in the mindset of printers is needed to take full advantage of the possibilities this method of printing brings, but that once the method is perfected the rewards are significant. The company is currently looking at pushing the boundaries with four colour printing and expanding the colour gamut even further. He said, 'It is our responsibility to our customers to keep pushing the quality, keep delivering and be innovative.'
Voice of experience
Based in Castle Donington, in Derbyshire, Brownett Ltd celebrates its 10th anniversary in September this year. The company is owned by Mark and Vicky Brownett, but its roots go back to a previous incarnation started in 1975 by Mark's father.
The original company produced hand-engraved embossing dies for whiskey labels and flatbed cutters for Gallus machines amongst others. It was bought by the Danish die manufacturer, Gerhardt A/S in 1980, which kept the name as part of its portfolio. Mark Brownett joined the company straight out of school in 1982, after he was offered a job on the back of one week's work experience. This turned into 23 years with Gerhardt during which time he worked his way up to be head of a platemaking department built from scratch.
It was in 1985 that Gerhardt's Ron Spring saw an opportunity in photopolymer platemaking and decided to set up a platemaking department within the die manufacturing company. A large investment was made in DuPont equipment and 17-year-old Mark was put in charge of the operation. It was also one of the first three companies in the UK to invest in the Purup system, which at the time cost around a quarter of a million pounds. The investment paid off and in its heyday, the platemaking department had 27 staff and turned over £1 million.
Then in 2003, Gerhardt decided to move the department into separate premises and Mr Brownett saw an opportunity to buy out the business and set it up in his own name as a fully fledged repro house. 'It took about six months to sort out the MBO,' he said, 'but it was all very amicable and for the first three months we stayed in Gerhardt's building until we found our own premises nearby.'
Eventually in September 2003, Brownett was reborn and 19 staff and equipment moved into a new unit in Trent Lane in Castle Donington. Importantly, most of the original staff are still with the company. Mr Brownett said, 'The most important asset we have is the people. Our staff has on average been with us for 15 years and the knowledge they have is crucial to the business. Although the last couple of years have been tough, we have never had to make anyone redundant.'
Investing and upgrading
With a turnover of £1 million, Brownett's customer base today is 75% in label printing, 20% in flexible packaging and the remaining 5% consists of orders for screen and letterpress printing. The majority of customers are UK based printers, with some export to Nigeria and other overseas countries.
In 2012, the company made a £150,000 investment in new solvent platemaking equipment from DuPont with the specific aim of acquiring new business from other competing print processes. This new suite of machinery includes a Cyrel 1000 P incremental processor, a Cyrel 1000 D dryer, a Cyrel Punch and a Cyrel 1000 ECLF exposure light finisher unit, all of which were installed in December. At the same time, an upgrade from Esko to the company's existing CDI 4835 unit to HD 4000 resolution and latest screening technology was implemented and HD certification is now on its way.
A long term DuPont customer, Mr Brownett said at the time, 'The build quality of DuPont platemaking equipment has always been excellent. Customer service and back up support never fail and we have no doubt that this was the right choice for us. This is an investment for the future that will help us attract new customers and provide top quality plates.'
The studio uses GMG software for proofing and some 70% to 80% of artwork approval is done by emailing PDFs to the customer. In the platemaking room, there is a Flex Pro/Fleye plate analysing system for quality assurance. This looks at the dot structure using 3D imaging and topographical visualisation via a camera and associated software. A solvent recovery system filters the solvent used each day and removes the discarded polymers so the solvent can be re-used the next day.
As a value added extra, the company is also the sole UK agent for Electro Optic, a German manufacturer of high precision cutting tools for the label printing industry. The relationship was established two years ago and offers customers the opportunity to order plates and dies at the same time. Mr Brownett said, 'Working with Electro Optic gives us another string to our bow and it is a part of our business which we are looking at growing so we can offer our customers a unique integrated service.'
Reaping the benefits
In Skegness, Print Quest is also investing heavily and expanding its facilities by taking on two additional units in anticipation of projected growth of 30% in the next 18 months. Established in 1996, the company supplies repro services and plates to the UK, Europe and Asia, and currently has 12 staff with plans to take on another four people during the impending growth period.
A complete overhaul of the facilities is already well underway with a new plateroom nearing completion. In this climate-controlled cleanroom stands a Kodak Flexcel NX mid-sized system, a Dantex Aquaflex processor and two brand new DuPont Cyrel 1000 ECDLF exposure and finishing units. There is also a new separate plate storage area, light sensors in all areas and pipes built in under the floor that run to a solvent recovery system.
The studio has recently been equipped with a suite of new software from Graphic Republik which has supplied Isi's MaxPro for trapping, MaxColor for colour conversion and MaxStep for creation of the final layout. Print Quest is also the first UK company to invest in the Smart Screen flexo screening solution as part of the bundle.
A homegrown work management system has been put in place. This controls the entire process from cutting lines, to drying times and waste analysis, and is further being developed to link to the company website so customers can order online and follow their jobs in real time.
The company was the first in the UK to install the Flexcel NX technology and is still a firm devotee. Managing director, David Jarvis, said, 'Five years down the line and I still have complete faith in this product and the quality it produces. We can prove that it works and that it gives printers excellent results. The level of control you can achieve with the NX plate is exceptional, but you have to train your staff and run a clean plate shop in order to fully reap the benefits.'
Training is high on the company's agenda and an apprentice scheme has been set up in cooperation with a local college. The apprentices will be trained in all aspects of the business by spending three months in each department from sales and order taking through the studio to the platemaking room. This means that staff will be multi-skilled and can easily be allocated where needed the most. Mr Jarvis said, 'There is reluctance in the industry to train staff and it is holding development back. We need to embrace new technology and train people to use it to its full potential.'
The company has recently installed a Dantex Aquaflex processor with micro water filtration and launched the Eco Di NeXt product. 'Waterwash is an important solution for the future of flexo platemaking technology,' said Mr Jarvis. 'We have spent 18 months developing this product, working together with Dantex to get the machine modified to our requirements, and there is no way our waterwash plate would be going out, if it was not absolutely right.
The processor will shortly be complemented by an Aquaflex plate finishing unit with integrated LED light table for production of plate sizes up to 920 x 1320 mm - enabling full waterwash production to commence in earnest.
This is no way means that the company has turned its back on solvent technology. It was the first in the UK to install the DuPont Cyrel 2000 PS processor and remains committed to providing its customers with plates and technical support that fits each individual company's products.
In the bag
One of Print Quest's customers is CFN Packaging, which specialises in the printing of film and paper bags. The printing company was bought by Brian Yardy 13 months ago and employs some 60 staff at its two sites in Skegness. As well as five extrusion lines, it runs five flexo presses and 10 converting machines. A Windmöller & Hölscher Primaflex CM eight colour press, fitted with Easy-set auto register and viscosity control, was installed two years ago.
'Our printing experience combined with the plates from Print Quest mean that we can produces gravure like print quality for our customers,' said Mr Yardy. He went on to say that the high print quality has attracted many new accounts and reaffirmed its place as one of the country's top bag producers. On the back of this, the company is planning to expand its operations over the next year and build a new extension to the existing facilities.
Case study: Weetabix moves Alpen brand to flexo
When cereal manufacturer Weetabix decided to move the production of its Alpen brand packaging from gravure to flexo in 2010, it was seen as a bold move in an industry where gravure has traditionally considered to be delivering the highest quality print possible.
But for Weetabix, after being introduced to Miller Graphics' LiNX technology, the decision was simple. Developed in the wake of close collaboration between Miller and Kodak, LiNX - when combined with Miller Graphics' specialist retouching and colour management expertise - delivers photographic quality print from flexo processes.
The benefits are clear - gravure quality print at a reduced cost. Finer screen rulings, lower highlight dot gain, improved solid colours and a wider colour gamut all add up to provide high on-shelf impact. In addition, it enables the use of fewer ink colours, and delivers other significant repro, plate and on-press efficiencies, all of which have cost and lead time benefits, as well as a positive environmental impact.
Delighted with the results and efficiencies realised with the shift to flexo, Weetabix recently decided to move its extensive cereal bar range from gravure to flexo too. This was a significant and challenging project. Initially the bar range covered some 24 designs (it has subsequently been expanded with further products, promotions and price variants) using a range of brand colours which extended from warm reds to bright greens and dark browns.
Working closely together, the technical teams at Buxton-based Primopost and Miller Graphics identified the potential for a high level of common working in what was a very varied range of designs.
The first challenge was to ensure that the text panels could be fitted to a common template allowing a single common ITR sleeve to deliver the continuous background colour across the range. It was also recognised that the background colour for the nutritional information could be delivered by a common plate. This left the process colours alone to deliver the major pack design differentiators across the total product range.
To increase the running efficiency of the designs, retouching was approached on the basis of 'engineering out' black from most, if not all, of the process sets, addressing in particular the smooth transition from the product shot in the foreground to the delicate sky and mountain landscape which is the hallmark of the Alpen brand.
Throughout the project Miller Graphics made full use of its 'DotMatch' flexo wet proofing facility, to ensure that the technically demanding elements of the designs were effectively realised.
Key to the confidence felt by Primopost and Miller Graphics in approaching this project was the work previously carried out in developing press accurate proofing profiles. Primopost's technical development manager, John Callion, explained, 'We worked with Miller Graphics to calibrate our presses and as a result of this now have established profiles which we can match with confidence whenever we take Miller's originations to press.
'This covers all our major substrate formats and has allowed us to capitalise upon the colour gamut and reduce the overall number of colours we use to produce any given design.'
Following the success of the initial bar range, which included Alpen branded products of both full fat and light variants, the decision was made to move other products, such as Weetabix Oatybars, across to flexo. This was doubly challenging, as each press run included not one but four versions of the packaging, each featuring a different cartoon character.
Mark Tyrell, who manages packaging development on behalf of Weetabix concluded, 'Moving to flexo using the LiNX technology has delivered cost savings, reductions in lead times, and increased flexibility. This allows us to get packaging changes to the market faster than ever before. We're delighted with the results.'
<Print Quest Kodak>Print Quest's Conor Carnall laminating a Kodak NX plate
<Reproflex 3>Andrew Hewitson inspecting the platemaking in the wide Kodak system
<Mark Brownett>Mark Brownett has made a large investment in DuPont equipment
<CFN Packaging>CFN Packaging uses plates from Print Quest on its Windmöller & Hölscher Primaflex press